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Do you want to come in? Thoughts on “gates” and the art worldS’ currencies

It was so nice of our ex-resident Heather Kapplow sending us an interesting link with a greeting: “This made me think of you guys… hope all’s well in hiatus land.” –> “Goodbye to All That: Why Do Artists Reject the Art World?”  Then right after that, we noticed everyone was talking about it, some rather personally and anguished. Others seemed to have just reacted to the catchy headline.  It has been a topic for a while — “The Art World” and “the problematic relationship of artists to it”.  The discussion is valid and sincere but our questions remain: “Which ‘The Art World’ are we talking about? (Including ‘the art world’ we make in our heads?)” And if any, “Who are the ‘gatekeepers?'”  

We have recently been contacted by a few individuals including art students, who have wondered about the implications or “strategies” of RFAOH related to these questions.  While we always take time to write back, something we find really curious is the fundamental lack of “professionalism” in the arts contrary to the current debate about the “professionalization” of art practice itself.  Arts organizations tend to mete out their responses to inquiries as a way of keeping the hierarchy between the artists and the institution intact, although they often claim it’s due to the lack of time/money.  This core problem perpetuates the art world’s “gate keeping”, whose gates are built and maintained ultimately by ourselves (as cultural workers are most of the time also artists), and which creates more “unpaid labour” for art practitioners in their attempt to cross the gates.  What we detect here deep down, beyond the money/time issue and besides the self-importance/absorption hallmark to our discipline, is a strong sense of “privilege” in the arts, more complex and nuanced than simple economic or class advantage.  We think it’s worthwhile for everyone who participates in this industry [the art world] to consider the ethics surrounding the normalization of its power apparatus at an individual level, in addition to the broader issues of the “art-economy”.  In fact, we are most curious about this overlooked privilege as a fundamental condition of the art world since the dawn of time, seemingly clashing directly with celebrated 20th century proclamations of “everyone is an artist” and “art is for everyone”.  Though meant well initially as a resistance to bourgeois society and/or as a political stance, it is intriguing how this layered concept has become co-opted and ultimately helped to clear a path for the current “popularization of art”, which we feel might be making artists’ lives actually harder, to the point that many are “leaving”.

In her critical, but also witty article written for e-flux’s journal last fall: If You Don’t Have Bread, Eat Art!: Contemporary Art and Derivative Fascisms, Hito Steyerl explores the notion of art as an alternative currency.  Remarkably illuminating the usual melee of vying constituents that imbue this esoteric world with its accepted notions of value (including art as an alternative currency), she then urges us to consider (the “hypothetical possibility” of) art as an “alternative alternative currency”, that could be used for more locally centered solutions as a way of re-imagining beyond the current hierarchy of cliques within a monolithic notion of “The Art World”: “Could art as alternative currency not only circulate within existing systems but even launch not-yet-existing economies (publics, institutions, markets, parallel art worlds, etc.)?”  She continues, “…How to make tangible the idea that belonging is in becoming—not in having been? What is art’s scale, perspective, and challenge in de-growing constituencies? Can one transform art’s currency into art’s confluence?”  

Her idea of art as an alternative currency (and an “alternative alternative” currency) somewhat resonates with what we wrote in the latest issue of Station to Station on “other kinds of currency”, and is useful if we wish to talk about the next step, the survival of multiple “art worlds” and “art practices/practitioners” in or outside the gates – but perhaps this topic needs a whole separate post.

And speaking of  “currency”, here’s another at once brilliant and ridiculous kind of gatekeeping: “Is e-flux the Gatekeeper of the Virtual Art World?” (Unless you can afford at least $299 USD — do not forget the “gatekeeping” happens only when there are folks who want to come in)

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